Stonewall Riot

In the early hours of Saturday June 28, 1969, New York City Police officers conducted a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in the Greenwich Village area of the city. After emptying the club and placing some people under arrest, the patrons of the club began to physically resist the police. Violence ensued and the Tactical Patrol Force, New York’s riot control squad, had to be called out to bring the crowd under control. The violent reaction of the crowd was viewed as being unprecedented for gays at the time and is credited as marking the beginning of a more radical gay–lesbian rights movement.

The gay–lesbian rights movement in the United States did not start with the Stonewall riot. In 1924, Henry Gerber launched the Society for Human Rights, although the society was shut down within the year. In 1950, a group of gay men formed the Mattachine Society. Initially they argued for political protest if society failed to recognize homosexuals as a distinct group and respect their rights. However, this approach proved to be too radical for the time, and the group quickly became more concerned with homosexuals assimilating within society and conforming to prevailing social norms. In 1955, a lesbian equivalent, the Daughters of Bilitis, was formed. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, these groups maintained a low public profile with few public protests principally against rules preventing the federal government from employing homosexuals, although these protests were muted and centered on showing that homosexuals could be otherwise respectable members of society. In the 1960s, a number of smaller more radical homosexual rights groups formed, encouraged by the approaches of the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements, although they were disparate and relatively ineffective.

Homosexuality was taboo in New York in the 1960s; in addition to sodomy laws, state laws prevented licensed premises serving alcohol to homosexuals and prohibited individuals from wearing nongender-appropriate clothing in public. Despite this, there were a number of gay bars and clubs operating in the city. Many operated as private clubs whose members were supposed to bring their own alcohol, and the Stonewall Inn was one such unlicensed business. It is alleged that the Stonewall Inn was one of many run by the Mafia with bribes paid to local police to allow its continued operation.

On Friday June 27, 1969, Judy Garland’s funeral was held in New York City. More than 20,000 people waited to view the body of the iconic actress, who was particularly popular with the homosexual community. It was later that night police began the raid of the Stonewall Inn. Raids were not uncommon in such bars across the city and the United States; however, the violent reaction of homosexuals to the police action that night was viewed as being unprecedented. A crowd of approximately 400 patrons and passersby formed outside of the Stone Inn during the raid. When some of the arrested patrons attempted to resist the police, the crowd began to throw objects, and the eight officers on the raid were forced to take refuge within the club and call for back up. It took a few hours to restore order to the streets outside of the Stonewall Inn.

Crowds gathered outside of the Stonewall Inn the following night and again clashed violently with police, as well as engaging in open displays of gay pride. They called for a change to the laws and society sentiments that left gay bars on the fringes of society, run by the Mafia, having to bribe police, and subject to raids. Protests continued until the following Wednesday, although only on the last night did the protests turn into violent confrontations once more.

The Stonewall riots had a great impact on the development of gay and lesbian rights in the United States. They did not end police raids of gay bars or bring about any changes to the laws affecting homosexuals. They did, however, mark the ascendance of the idea of gay pride, that homosexuality was not something to be ashamed of, and that society should recognize the rights of homosexuals. This found its expression in the creation of a number of new, more radical, groups, particularly the Gay Liberation Front, who were visible, vocal, and distinctive in their protests for greater recognition of gay and lesbian rights, including annual parades in New York to commemorate the riots. The symbolic resistance in the riots inspired gays in the United States and abroad to actively and openly campaign for gay and lesbian rights.

GAVIN J. REDDICK

References and Further Reading

  • D’Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Penguin, 1993.

See also American Civil Liberties Union; Antidiscrimination Laws; Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986); Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000); Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Exec. Order 107 Stat. 1670, Section 571 (1993); Equal Protection of Law (XIV); Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995); Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund; Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996)

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